The failure of Army doctrine
This essay of mine was published last week by BreachBangClear.com, a military/LE-centered web site. It’ll probably only appeal to military people, especially those who have served during the War on Terror. It has been slighty edited to correct a few minor errors.
“All this nonsense about roadside bombs is ridiculous. Those bombs are easy to beat. We’ve known how to handle them since World War Two.”
A man said this to me as we stood in line at a restaurant. I had never met him before. We had started a friendly conversation a minute earlier, and he asked me about my short hair and paracord bracelet. I had told him I was an Iraq vet. He then expressed his disgust at our inability to win the war, and dismissed the problems we were having with IEDs.
I spent almost all of 2005 on a convoy escort team in Iraq, and had just returned home a few months earlier. I understood the IED threat pretty well. And I didn’t have a clue what simple, obvious solution to IEDs he was talking about.
I gave him a puzzled look and said, “I don’t know what you’re getting at. How should we handle roadside bombs?”
The man rolled his eyes in exasperation, then spoke to me like I was a child with language comprehension problems.
“Flail tanks. Come on, how do you guys not know that? It’s easy, just send flail tanks down the roads.”
I sighed, closed my eyes for a moment. Flail tanks were last used in the 40’s. They had big spinning drums with heavy chains attached, and would drive through minefields setting off mines with chains. They wouldn’t work in Iraq. I calmly explained that IEDs usually aren’t land mines, and beating them with chains wouldn’t set them off. I told him that chains would tear up roads and give insurgents more places to emplace IEDs. I explained that if the solution was so obvious, the guys actually in country worrying about getting killed by IEDs would figure it out.
The man deflated, and went back to waiting in line. He didn’t say anything else.
So some civilians have an unrealistic view of the war. No surprise there. Unfortunately, that unrealistic view of the war doesn’t stay in the civilian world. Almost twelve years since our soldiers fired their first shots of the War on Terror, I’ve seen almost the same level of battlefield ignorance in the military. And most of it has been created by mindless adherence to training doctrine, which can be as blind to reality as the man in the restaurant.
When my unit was training for Afghanistan in early 2009, many of our instructors assumed we were going to Iraq. “In Iraq you have to do this. In Iraq make sure you don’t do this other thing.” When we told them we were going to Afghanistan, the almost universal response was, “Oh. . .it’s the same thing.”
No, it wasn’t. The terrain in Afghanistan was incredibly difficult compared to Iraq’s deserts, the enemy was much more aggressive, and the Taliban didn’t embrace technology the way Iraqi insurgents did. They were two different wars. But our trainers took a doctrine-based, cookie-cutter approach, and trained us as if those two very different combat environments were interchangeable. After so many years of both wars, they should have known better. And we should have benefitted from their knowledge, rather than feeling like we hadn’t been properly prepared.
Several years ago, after my Iraq deployment, I attended a National Guard Cavalry Scout course. Almost the entire curriculum was based on Cold War threats. We spent hours identifying “friendly” armored vehicles, some of which are used by our enemies, and “enemy” vehicles, some of which are used by allies. There was – literally – no IED training, although IEDs were the biggest threat to American troops at that time. The closest thing to it was “booby trap awareness”, part of which was a slide presentation that included pictures of Vietnam’s punji stake traps. Little to none of the class pertained to the War on Terror. And some of the students had actually been brought back from their deployed units in Iraq just to attend the class.
During the course, two visitors came from Fort Knox to ensure the course complied with training doctrine. Prior to their arrival, one instructor told us, “There will be no training when they’re here. We’re going to stand up here and read the class curriculum script word for word, in exactly the time allotted.” We students thought that was ridiculous, but were assured the visitors knew the subject matter intimately and had set the course up the best way possible. I met the visitors later. One had been an infantryman in Vietnam, the other was a female who had never served in the military. Neither had firsthand knowledge of current threats or either country we were fighting in at the time.
Last year I attended a training course for senior NCOs. During the course we studied hypothetical problems, based on actual incidents in Afghanistan. One problem was how to capture a local Taliban commander. This commander was known to move between his home and a mosque. So how could we determine when he was either at home or the mosque, and capture him?
One group of students, who had served on staffs overseas, came up with a perfect solution: put infantry patrols around the commander’s home and the mosque until they spotted him. Then call in Special Forces. Simple.
I’m no SF guy or tactical genius, but I spent a lot of time outside the wire and know a little about capturing high value targets. I knew that the patrols would do nothing but scare the commander off. The Taliban network of informants would notify him, he’d lay up somewhere else and fight on. To me and a couple of other students, the group’s proposed solution was worse than ridiculous; it was guaranteed to fail, and would likely get a bunch of infantry hurt or killed. And nobody had to be an Afghanistan expert to see the plan’s flaws. That stupid idea wouldn’t work against a wanted fugitive here in Texas.
The plan got an A for the group. The group’s plan didn’t violate doctrine. The instructors were dedicated, intelligent and had almost all been deployed on staffs. They didn’t see the plan’s obvious shortcomings because they didn’t have targeting experience themselves; they could only assess whether or not the plan checked the doctrinal blocks required for a high grade. The Army hadn’t ensured that our soldiers, and especially our teachers, understand the reality of today’s battlefield.
After a decade of war, we shouldn’t have to relearn lessons with blood. We shouldn’t have trainers who don’t know basic truths about current battlefields. We shouldn’t have a training system based on wars long past, that requires our troops to learn current threats through blood and loss.
Outdated, irrelevant doctrine is the reason my old tank unit was still training to counter Soviet tactics in the late 90’s, a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed and years after we saw the new face of war in Mogadishu. It’s the reason one of our armor lieutenants, when I asked why we weren’t being trained to counter sniper threats in urban areas, confidently (and unrealistically) answered, “Snipers are no problem. All we have to do is give the command ‘gunner, sabot, sniper’ and take him out.” Doctrine is the reason I arrived in Afghanistan trained to interrogate Soviet generals, but not trained to handle Afghan insurgents. Doctrine is the reason instructors said to me, “We know this is stupid. We know it’s not realistic. But we don’t have a choice. We have to train you this way, or get shut down.”
At the end of the previously mentioned training course last year, we had a large and complex final exercise. Many different battlefield activities had to be coordinated. One of those activities has been conducted daily for over ten years in Afghanistan (I won’t get too specific about it here). In Afghanistan, this activity works and is the only realistic way to do it. It’s an accepted fact of life there.
But this activity violates doctrine. So in the training exercise we had to pretend we couldn’t conduct this activity, and ignore a significant factor in mission planning and analysis. The instructors knew it was ridiculous. They knew we weren’t getting the exercise’s full value. They met with those of us who had operational experience and searched for a way to implement reality into the training. But we hit a wall; doctrine prevented us from training for reality. The very thing that was supposed to ensure proper preparation for war, actually prevented proper preparation for war.
I don’t know enough about the creation of training doctrine to know how to change it. I do know, from training and operational experience, that it isn’t being changed fast enough to keep up with the real world. We’re fighting an enemy that uses no doctrine; they do whatever works, when it works. The training and operational methods we adopt must counter that adaptability.
We serve in the greatest Army the world has ever known. Our officers and NCOs have more combat experience than some soldiers had at the conclusion of World War II. There is no reason our training doctrine can’t reflect what our troops have gained through hard experience. There’s no reason the phrase “It’s a TRADOC school” must be a euphemism for “This school sucks and you won’t learn anything.” Our soldiers, in this war and the next ones sure to come, deserve better.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 12 Comments
Tags: doctrine, IED, military training, war on terror